25th May 2006

Posted in

Blog :: Citing Frost

Lately I've seen lots of people citing Robert Frost in favor of building a fence: "Good Fences make Good Neighbors" (neo-neocon is latest offender).

I have a literary bone to pick with this citation. To be very clear - I'm not trying to address the politics of the Fence... BUT: This is quickly developing into a pet peeve of mine! Read the poem - doesn't Frost seem dismissive of the wall? Doesn't he seem to think the neighbor's comment "Good fences make good neighbors" is based more on tradition than than reason? Doesn't he even portray the wall as something almost evil?

Frost starts out with "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and the implication is that "something" is something else - nature (cold and sun), hunters, etc, and so he must mend his wall. As he mends, however, he starts to wonder about the point of the the wall.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

At this point Frost is questioning the value of the wall. Why build it if it's not needed? The neighbor's response is the frequently (mis)attributed title to the poem. Frost, though, is beginning to question the statement:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall...

Perhaps he is even offended by the wall at this point - are you wanting a wall because you don't trust me? The poem is (as poems tend to be) deliciously ambiguous as to what it's really trying to say - but it seems pretty clear that Frost is starting to self identify as the "something" that doesn't like a wall. In fact the stone wall (and the neighbor patching it) begin to seem a little ominous:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

So what does this have to do with the advisability of building a border fence? Absolutely nothing! I'm just irritated at people (including congressmen) citing a well known line from a poem in support of an idea when the poem as a whole seems to be anti-wall when you actually read it. Ok, I'll go back to criticizing people's grammar on slashdot now...

Posted on May 25th 2006, 03:47 PM